Important disclaimer: Things are happening so incredibly quickly it’s hard to do detailed and verified analysis. And it’s worth bearing in mind that this is true for all journalists not just me. I don’t want to add to unverified noise and kneejerk hysterical reaction so I’m flagging here that I will occasionally be using WW3 Watch to park points that need further investigation and analysis, but which are in the interim merely exploratory. So please treat everything with kid gloves unless it’s stated very clearly that it’s not just speculation. It’s wise to remember the first casualty of war is truth. This was the case in Vietnam, the Falklands and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It remains the case now too.
Could Vladimir Putin be on a Holy crusade?
Pippa Malmgren, whose father is Harald Malmgren, a senior US aid to presidents JFK, Johnson, Nixon and Ford and who spent a lot of time in Moscow in the 1970s (visiting Gosplan amongst other things), notes in her latest blog that the world could be overlooking the influence of Putin’s relgious inclinations in current affairs. (She also speculates he might be ill, but that’s another story.)
I tend to agree about the religious angle. In recent years Putin has entertained a penchant for being photographed in Russian orthodox settings looking pious and devout.
Whenever I’ve brought this up with Kremlin watchers, however, they’ve dismissed it as purely theatrical. Putin isn’t religious, they say, he just likes it to appear that way.
But I worry there might be more to it than just that. A missionary mindset could explain some of the more inexplicable behaviours we are seeing of late. Is Putin a man on a crusade? Or is he simply using religion as a cover for broader expansion and empire-building? That is the question.
To get a better idea for the answer it’s worth familiarizing oneself with the modern online revival of the Moscow as the Third Rome myth, in which the Russian Orthodox Church is prophesised to save Christendon — specifically the Roman Catholic Church — from its own (satanic, ahem) corruption, is being promoted online. It’s termed “Third Rome” because it represents the third official incarnation of the Church following the Byzantine schism which emerged out of Constantinople.
But first some context.
An inauspicious omen
In April, 2019, just after the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burnt down, I wrote a highly speculative piece about how the event could be used by agent provocateurs to foment and amplify the ancient rivalry between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. More so, that online tools (similar to those that helped to radicalise Isis recruits) could be deployed quite broadly to empower this mission.
It is an important narrative in the Russian propaganda war that is often overlooked by serious commentators because of its metaphysical dimension. Elites tend to roll their eyes at this “sort of nonsense” because their instinct is to believe that enlightened democracies have moved beyond primitive religious thinking. In doing so, however, they overlook that religious voids tend to fill themselves in odd ways no matter what.
The rise of proxy religions such as scientism, environmentalism and wokeism are already a good example of what I’m talking about. But so are popular online phenomena like occult TikTok or broader beliefs in manifesting and meme magic (the latter of which some say proved a bigger influence over Donald Trump’s win in 2016 than Cambridge Analytica). The rise of online mysticism in general is why younger generations, as BBC documentarian Adam Curtis pointed out at FT Alphaville’s Vaudeville stage show in 2019, all know about Illuminati triangles in the music industry. It’s why bitcoin has become such a prominent online force. And why some of the most successful online personalities like Elon Musk operate in the style of prophets.
But while the West laughs at those who indulge in spiritual, superstitious or metaphysical online content, Putin seems more adept at figuring out how those beliefs can be hacked to influence political thinking. He understands that by tapping into humanity’s base yearning for something bigger to believe in, something beyond mere materialism, he can offer what the Western system in its current configuration can not. Sometimes that’s becasue the West does not have a better or competing narrative. (Other times it’s because it cannot risk drawing attention to the inconsistencies in its own official narrative without exposing fundamental conflicts and hypocrisies about how democracies operate.)
What is clear is that in an age of tectonically powerful online mysticism, he who crafts the most powerful myth, or the myth that soothes base anxieties and fears most effectively, can influence geopolitics to the greatest degree. Deployed correctly, these myths can divide and conquer foreign enemies or help to consolidate power at home.
This is why it pays to understand what myths Putin is leaning into domestically, not just externally.
But it’s also why it pays to analyse disinformation as something more complex than the simple rule we seem to be applying today which is that everything we don’t like is “fake news” — a tradition that is too crude to grasp the reflexive impact of telling too many lies. These days the information space is so polluted, the blowback itself is part of the story. Putin’s mythmaking plays a part in that, but so does our own.
When Russia’s bioweapon lies duped its own people
A good example of the sort of blowback that disables your own side is a story told to me by Ken Alibek, a defector from the Soviet Union’s secret biological programme — which was exposed by David Kelly and Matthew Methelson in 1991.
Alibek joined the Bioprepart programme in 1975, just three years after Russia and the United States had become signatories to the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972.The agreement was supposed to rebuild trust between the two Cold War states and put to rest concerns about America’s decades-long secretive biological tinkering in facilities like Fort Detrick.
The idea to sign the agreement had been born out of a realisatoin by President Nixon a few years earlier, planted in him by Matthew Metheleson, that there was little merit in maintaining secret biological programmes because, unlike investments in nuclear technology, investments in biological weapons would only reduce development costs. If costs of accessing bioweapons went down it would be harder to control their use and proliferation.
The problem is the Russians never trusted that the Americans would remain true to their word. To the contrary they became convinced almost immediately after the argeement had been signed that the US intended to hoodwink them. And that the secret programmes would be quickly outsourced to the private pharmaceutical sector.
The paranoia prompted Russia’s investment in Biopreparat, a secret programme of their own to weaponise anthrax and smallpox.
Alibek, a native Kazakh, was recruited as a specialist in infectious diseases and epidemiology in that context. He rose to become the deputy chief of the agency from 1988 to 1992.
One of the stories he has since told publicly relates to the strange case of blowback he inadvertently engineered himself when a team member and he decided to come up with a plausible cover story for why they had vials of smallpox in their facilities if they were ever to be found by international inspectors. As recounted in this interview (my emphasis)
Interviewer question: Apparently the Russians have also conducted some expeditions to the Arctic to exhume bodies of smallpox victims, maybe 100 years old, buried in the permafrost?
The head of the Vector facility responsile for developing smallpox biological weapons and myself were in on the beginning of the process [that led to this story, which is only a cover]. He was very anxious about how it would be possible to conduct research on smallpox in the future because of the global eradication program, the danger of working with smallpox, and the fact that we would be under close observation. He suggested that we could explain the necessity for working with smallpox virus because somebody had found some frozen corpses with smallpox scars on their faces. That would provide a good rationale for continuing to work with smallpox virus. Imagine my reaction when I heard this again recently from the Russians, because I remember how we developed the cover story.
Interestingly he referred to the disinfo as the creation of a “legend”.
One of the other interesting things he talked about was how people were convinced to work on the projects in the first place. How it was that they didn’t feel troubled by the potential human impact of what they were doing. And how it could get signed off at all.
To explain this he noted that people like me, with the benefit of hindsight look at their activities from a global perspective. But this ignores the warped incentives at the local level.
By 1990 when Alibek was approached by two generals from the KGB explaining to him why he needed to continue the weapons work, he says he was senior enough and specialist enough to realise this was bullshit. But when the same generals went to higher levels, such as the military industrial committee, they would present the information arguing “we know that these countries are working on biological weapons and there is no way for us to stop it”. People at this level, he argued, weren’t motivated by a desire to protect the Soviet Union but rather by entirely other things. “In this case, it is a kind of gaming,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that biological weapons wouldn’t necessarily be developed, but it was more to protect their well being, to get additional funding to build new facilities, just to become generals of guards, or to get a second star or a third star [uniform ranking]. It was a kind of hook, just like it’s working in any country these days.”
In other words bad incentives and compartmentalisation led otherwise reasonable people to engage in what outsiders might otherwise view as immoral or potentially criminal actions against humanity. All of this was further enabled by being wrapped in a de facto “holy mission”. In the case of Biopreparat, that mission was the preservation of the Soviet idea.
Cue the myth of Moscow as the Third Rome
Almost a decade ago I started to come across curious content on Russian language (and some English) websites — clearly unverified and of suspicious origin — presenting theories that Vladmir Putin might have an ancestral connection to historic Tsaric figures. As a classicist I found this fascinating in terms of myth-making because of its potential to establish a divine right to rulership claim. Millenia before that, Caesar and Augustus had exploited similar ancestral strategies — lineages which connected them to the goddess Venus — to help consolidate their extreme powers as norms.
Even so, it was unclear who exactly was spreading these myths. Some informed voices told me it was very unlikely that it was Putin cultivating this mythology. I wasn’t so sure, precisely because of the way it linked into the wider biblical mission associated with the Third Rome theory.
What was clear was that the narrative was designed to prey on the conscience of Western Christian communities so as to generate distrust in the Roman Catholic Church and to ignite sympathies for the idea that only the Russian Orthodox Church would be the one to save the Christian world from its own corruption. In this way it pushed the idea of a deep state phenomenon within the Catholic Church itself — pushed by the Devil himself no less — which in its own way helped to explain why the Church had succumbed to such terrible scandals in recent decades.
The myth, in other words, sets up a type of divine right justification for Putin’s western expansion, positioning him on a mission to purge wider territories of the decadent influence of a corrupted Western church. A story that also, as it happens, ties into an even more powerful Russia-connected myth: that of the Fatima prophecies, which some say predicted the moral decline of the Roman Catholic Church as far back as 1917 — a year which just happens to be connected to Russia for other well known reasons.
But the story also relates to a power struggle closer to home between the Russian Orthodox church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which commands a much wider diaspora.
As Foreign Policy wrote back in 2018 (my emphasis):
In recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has embraced aspects of this Christian imperial ideology, demanding that state officials read some of the religious philosophers who came into their own in the twilight days of the Russian Empire. These include Nikolai Berdyaev, a self-described Christian socialist whose ideas tended toward a kind of religious anarchism but who envisaged a messianic role for Russia in the world, and the fascist Ivan Ilyin, two prominent intellectual figures in the first-wave Russian diaspora. Berdyaev and Ilyin despised one another but held a certain common ground on Russian exceptionalism and Christian empire.
As FP explains Ukrainian nationalism gets in the way of the broader move by Moscow to use a reinvigorated Russian Orthodox Church as cover for its wider foreign policy objectives. This is in part because Ukrainian Orthodox Church would prefer to breakaway from the umbrella (and direction) of the Russian Church to cultivate its own independent identity and sovereignty. This, of course, doesn’t gel with the Indiana Jones-style mission to use mystical forces and religious artefacts to legitimise claims over broader European territories. At the very least Ukraine represents an annoying holdout that undermines the concept of Orthodox unity.
It is against this backdrop that Moscow’s ultimate destiny to inherit the seat of Rome comes into play:
Again from FP:
If Constantinople was the Second Rome, Moscow came to dream of being the third. The vision of Moscow as the Third Rome was famously spelled out by the Orthodox monk Filofei of Pskov in a 1510 letter to Vasili III, the first Russian ruler to adopt the title of tsar. The fall of Constantinople was still within living memory, and the idea that Moscow was its natural successor as the head of the Christian world became deeply appealing to conservative Russians.
Whether Putin believes in the narrative or not is probably irrelevant. It’s the power and appeal of the myth itself to ordinary Russians and broader Christians that matters.
Spend some time on the mystic internet, and it won’t be long before you find Orthodox clerics spreading theories about malevolent global cabals in league with Satan.
All this is why the religious story matters.
At the same time, it’s important not to get carried away but to pay close attention to who is spreading and emboldening the myths online as well. Also to what role blowback may potentially be playing in the whole story.